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6 Ways to Combat ‘Bag Lady Syndrome’

April 5, 2016
Personal Finance
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By Elizabeth Revenko

Learn more about Elizabeth on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Women worry more than men about their financial security, according to a 2015 study by the American Psychological Association and Harris. Nearly a third of women polled say they worry about finances all or most of the time, and nearly half reported stress in struggling to pay for basics. In addition, in a 2013 study by Allianz, almost half of women reported that they “sometimes” or “often” fear losing all their money and becoming homeless.

Extreme anxiety over finances is common enough among women that it has been dubbed “bag lady syndrome.” This represents the fear of running out of money, losing your home and ending up destitute and alone, save for some plastic shopping bags stuffed with whatever you can carry.

This anxiety can erode a woman’s mental and physical well-being, place strain on her relationships, affect her career and even create the very situation she fears, no matter how money-savvy she really is. It can make a woman feel alone.

>> MORE: The complete guide to building a budget

By popular request, bag lady syndrome was the focus of our firm’s recent Women’s Circle, a gathering for women to talk and learn about their money decisions. Some participants described how it can feel when the money fears are ratcheted up.

Sara (all names have been changed) said she would sometimes lie awake at night worrying about her finances. Brynn admitted that she knew she was overly conservative with her investments because she couldn’t bear to lose anything, even though intellectually she didn’t agree with her own behavior. Angie reported being extreme about savings. Sal said financial anxiety would, counterintuitively, cause her to ignore her bank balance and spend too much.

This anxiety and fear spans age groups and socioeconomic status. It exists at similar levels among widowed, divorced, married and never-married women. Making more money doesn’t solve the problem. Breadwinners feel the paralyzing fear. Women of influence feel it.

When fear takes over decision-making, people can make poor decisions — or no decisions at all. So what can you do? Here are six ways that participants in our Women’s Circle reported effectively managing their financial stress.

Seize control

Taking action is the best way to feel — and be — in control of your money. Sandy said she would print out the budget she had been assiduously avoiding, slash items with a fat red pen and feel instantly back in control. Even small steps like budgeting, cutting back on spending or boosting the amount you save each month can help. You’ll feel better for taking control back — and it’s good for your finances, too.

Reassert self-reliance

It’s important to reaffirm your ability to take care of what’s important to you. Once Lisa realized she had been waiting on her family to get her estate plan in order, she said she was able to take steps on her own to get things underway.

Take care of yourself

Doing something simple to nurture yourself can be a huge stress reliever. It doesn’t have to be expensive — or cost anything at all. Take a bubble bath, sing along to the radio, stop and smell the flowers, put on your comfiest jammies. Remind yourself of the things you enjoy in life and watch the fear recede.

Avoid regrets

Each person has a unique tolerance for risk, and exercising caution is smart. Still, being overly conservative due to irrational fears of losing it all can leave you with regrets about missed opportunities. This can apply to more than just investments, and perhaps in the opposite way of what you might expect. Roz realized that fear sometimes caused her to save more than she needed, and she had trouble spending on herself despite knowing that she could. She started taking the vacations she had been putting off, and it made her feel happy and confident in her spending-saving balance.

Ask for help

Sometimes you won’t be sure what to do on your own, and that’s normal. Rose said her financial life had gotten more complicated as she got older, and she reached a point where it seemed like she was spending her weekends guiltily avoiding making money decisions. She hired a coach and a financial advisor to get her back on track and keep her there. Having support from friends, family and even professionals can make it easier to manage your finances and get you unstuck.

Cultivate connections

Nurturing relationships with family, friends and professional networks can help you feel safe and in control of your world. In our Women’s Circle, one woman said that she keeps a commitment to herself to get out and do something social two to three times a week. It helped her to keep connected and feel secure, even when she lost her job.

Get unstuck, and stay unstuck, by taking action, creating a plan, staying focused and leaning on a community you trust. Action, honesty and a commitment to your well-being are the ultimate keys to combating bag lady syndrome.

Elizabeth Revenko is a senior financial planner with Mosaic Financial Partners in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information about upcoming circles, join the Mosaic Women’s Circles mailing list.

Image via iStock.